Saturday, 24 November 2012

Fiji - the Final Word

It's time to say ni sa moce to Fiji - I've really enjoyed learning about this South Pacific nation and the thoughts of visiting Fiji have kept me warm during a dark European November!

A summary of the themes

During the month or so that I've been blogging about Fiji, I learned about the different parts of Oceania, I learned about the Indo-Fijian minority and the Gods of War.  I learned how to open a coconut and make the Pacific favourite, Palu Sami.  I also did some research into Cannibalism and Obeyesekere's theory on Cannibal Talk.

Tools for research

I used four books during my research about Fiji:

Lonely Planet: Fiji (2006, 7th Edition) which was great for background research.

Some books for research
On Fiji Islands by Ronald Wright (1986) - an amusing travelogue that inspired me to do some research into the Gods of War, amongst other things.  Wright also has a very interesting chapter on the fate of the Banabans (or Ocean Islanders)

Cannibal Talk: The Man-Eating myth and Human sacrifice in the South Seas (2005) by Sri Lankan anthropoplogist, Gananath Obeyesekere - it's an academic book, but very readable and I'm interested in reading more of Obeyesekere's work in the future.

Most interesting of all was Joseph C Veramu's novel Moving Through the Streets (1994) - perhaps the most famous novel to come out of Fiji. I really enjoyed reading it, although it tells an incredibly gritty story of life in the slums of Raiwaqa, the South Pacific's largest housing estate.  It deals with the lives of young Fijian men, who grow up in poverty, surrounded by violence and crime, it's almost impossible for them to achieve their potential.  It reminded me of several books I've read before, namely Trainspotting, Last Exit to Brooklyn, A Clockwork Orange and Angela's Ashes.  I'd highly recommend it, if you want to see life beyond the idyllic picture most of us have of Fiji.

I also watched several movies which were filmed in Fiji, although none of them specifically addressed Fijian life or culture.  Nevertheless, it was nice to get lost in images of Fiji and a chance to dream about the beach and a tropical paradise.

Milla Jovovich in Return to the Blue Lagoon
Innocence is quite a theme in the Lagoon movies, both in The Blue Lagoon (Klieser, 1980) starring Brooke Shields and Christopher Atkins and its sequel, Return to the Blue Lagoon (Graham, 1991) starring Brian Krause and Milla Jovovich.  It's interesting that, whilst teenage nudity was acceptable in the 1980 movie, it had become something of a taboo by 1991!

I really enjoyed Cast Away (Zemeckis, 2000) starring Tom Hanks as the FedEx employee who gets stranded on a Pacific island, filmed in Fiji's Mamanuca Islands.  I didn't really enjoy Savage Islands (Fairfax, 1983) starring Tommy Lee Jones, which seemed derivative and unintelligent.

Other Themes

If I had time to continue blogging about Fiji, I would be interested in the following additional themes:

- Coral reefs
- Starfish
- Honeymoons
- Rugby
- the Sugar trade
- Hairstyles
Still from The Blue Lagoon
- The Lasakau Sea Warriors
- the University of the South Pacific
- the traditions of drinking Kava a.k.a. grog
- Survivor-type TV programmes
- the Japanese in the Pacific
- the cultivation of Beches-de-Mer (Sea cucumbers)
- the orange dove of Taveuni
- the Banabans of Ocean Island
- Methodism
- the people of Vaitupa in Tuvalu

Dinner Party Trivia

As usual I learned some trivia about Fiji which will come in handy for dinner party small talk:

- the word Fiji is a mispronunciation of the native word Viti, which is the name of Fiji's largest island.
- the Kaunitoni migration myth claims that the Fijians and other Pacific islanders originally came from Lake Tanganyika in East Africa
- some shipwrecked Europeans, like the Swede known as 'Charles Savage', gained a lot of power and influence over Fiji's chiefs.
- an outbreak of measles wiped out a third of Fiji's population in the late 19th century

Still from The Blue Lagoon
- Fiji became a British colony on the 10th of October 1874
- Fijians use the word kaivalagi to describe 'foreigners', literally 'people from far away'
- Kerekere is a tradition of 'unconditional giving' - it prevents any one member of a tribe from gaining too much wealth, as they are expected to share everything they own with others
- Toota-phoota is a Hindi phrase which means 'Broken Hindi'
- Bats are the only mammals which are native to Fiji
- Fiji's flag has a coat of arms with three types of food on it (sugar, coconut and bananas!)
- Degai is a Fijian snake-god who causes night and day by opening and closing his eyes
- In the 1850s, Levuka, the first European settlement and capital of Fiji had a global reputation for drunkness, violence and immorality. 
- Fiji's second-biggest island is called Vanua Levu, which means 'big island'

The Final Word

As part of my research, I read about the fire-walking tradition on the Fijian island of Beqa (pronounced Benga).  I find this tradition fascinating and it seems to be a real example of mind over matter.  I'm aware that there are fire-walking traditions in other parts of the world and that it has become quite popular as a work-place 'bonding' activity.  I was curious to see whether or not it would be possible to do some fire-walking here in London and, amazingly, there are opportunities out there, like the fire-walking evening that took place at London Zoo, last week - what a pity I missed it!

Dancing off to a not-so-traditional meke

And, of course, I've been listening to lots of Fijian music.  It's hard not to smile and feel happy, when you hear the sunny vibes of groups like Mokosoi ni delai deyo and Seru Serevi, but I really fell in love with a band called Black Rose, who are incredibly popular throughout the Pacific and combine more traditional music with pop beats and rap!  I loved their second album, Voices of Nature and I want to leave you with one of their most famous songs, Raude.  Enjoy!  And up next month, G . . .


Image credits:

The image of the books was taken by me.

The other images are stills from the Blue Lagoon and Return to the Blue Lagoon and are from photos taken by me. These images are being used to illustrate this blog post and promote the films. By publishing these images, I'm not condoning or encouraging reproduction of these images on the Internet or anywhere else. These images are not meant to bring the actors into disrepute or suggest their endorsement of this blog post, but are meant to highlight the performances of these actors in these movies.

Friday, 16 November 2012

Fiji - Cannibalism or just a misunderstanding?

I didn’t realise, until I started researching for this blog, that Fiji once had the nickname ‘the Cannibal Islands’ or that Fiji and the islands of the South Pacific had such a terrible reputation for cannibalism.

I’d come across the origins of the word cannibal before, when I was blogging about JamaicaCannibal is a corrupt form of Carib, the people Columbus first came in contact with as his ship reached, what is now, the Caribbean.  It’s quite telling that the word has its origins in Europe’s first contact with the New World and came into use at a time when Europeans wanted to de-humanise the peoples that stood in the way of New World colonisation.

In his book, Cannibal Talk : The Man-Eating Myth and Human Sacrifice in the South Seas (2005), anthropologist Gananath Obeyesekere talks about how our taboo around ‘eating the flesh of other people’ is one of the things that has been used to define us, as humans, but also as a ‘civilised’ society.  Of course, taboo is another interesting word, coming from the Pacific (including Fijian) tapu, which means something sacred.  Spanish conquest of the Americas was quick and ruthless and, before long, accusations of cannibalism shifted to the newly discovered islands of New Zealand and the South Pacific.
Illustration of a Cannibal Feast by de Bry

Building on the work of other anthropologists, such as William Arens (The Man-Eating Myth: Anthropology and Anthropophagy - 1979), the premise of Obeyesekere’s book is that cannibalism wasn’t as widespread a practice in the South Pacific, as is commonly believed.  As well as a cruel justification for ‘civilising’ the wild natives  (totally racist from a 21st century point of view) Obeyesekere goes even further and claims that the perceived cannibal practices of the South Pacific reflected European obsessions about man-eating and, indeed, were inspired by the practice of cannibalism by Europeans themselves

The Pacific is a BIG place – I remember that from my research into Kiribati.  In a place as big as the Pacific, European ships could get hopelessly lost, run into hostile territories, run out of food and water or be taken over by mutinous crews.  It wasn’t unusual for Europeans to find themselves shipwrecked, many miles from civilisation.  Obeyesekere asserts that, whilst hard evidence for cannibalism amongst South Pacific islanders is scant, we do have evidence of shipwrecked Europeans turning to cannibalism, in an attempt to stay alive. 

Perhaps the reality of having to eat a fellow human was too horrific to relate to other Europeans and the very real fear of falling victim to (or engaging in) cannibalistic practices, led Europeans to project their fears onto the savage ‘others’, who already seemed suitably wild enough to eat other people?

Cannibals Papua from a 1910 postcard
Obeyesekere differentiates between cannibalism and anthropophagy.  For Obeyesekere, cannibalism relates to the fear that other people will eat you and anthropophagy is the actual, often ritualistic, consumption of human flesh.  Interestingly, he doesn’t deny that anthropophagic practices existed in Fiji and amongst the Maori of New Zealand, but he denies that cannibalism was widespread in the South Pacific, as contemporary Europeans believed to be the case.  The exaggeration and myth-making around cannibalism gives him the concept which is the title of his book – Cannibal Talk.

By all accounts, European obsession with cannibalism goes back a long way and manifests itself in those staples of European horror movies – Vampires and Zombies.  I share my culture’s sense of taboo regarding cannibalism and I find the topic an unpleasant one to think about!  Nevertheless, people do eat other people, in extreme circumstances, such as the Andes flight disaster (Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571) in 1972, or accounts of human-flesh eating, in recent wars in Liberia and Congo.  Some of the West’s most feared monsters (whether real like Jeffrey Dahmer or fictional like Hannibal Lecter) were made famous by eating parts of their victim’s bodies.
Burne-Jones' The Vampire

Obeyesekere also makes the point that the European belief in South Pacific cannibalism could simply have been a culture or linguistic misunderstanding.  When Europeans arrived in the South Pacific, including New Zealand, they had no language with which to communicate with the native peoples.  Obeyesekere posits the possibility that accounts of native Pacific islanders making gestures that suggested eating human flesh, could just have easily have been mirror gestures to initial European questions.  If Europeans were so obsessed with cannibalism that they made gestures to find out whether the locals engaged in ‘man-eating’, it’s quite possible that the locals thought these strange, white people were asking them for human flesh.  There are accounts of early European contact with the Hawaiian islands, which suggest that the islanders feared that the Europeans might be cannibals.

I guess foreign cultures often frighten us with their weird eating habits – whether it’s Koreans eating dogs, the French eating snails or the Chinese eating everything, we quite happily assume that the rest of the world is constantly gorging on unthinkable ‘delicacies’.  I experienced this myself when I went to Uzbekistan – everything I read about the country indicated that I would regularly be offered sheep eyeballs, as the honoured guest at meals.  I can assure you that I was never once asked to eat a sheep’s eyeballs, brains or any other delicate part!  Perhaps modern travel writers, just as much as their 19th century predecessors, engage in a bit of exaggeration, in a bid to sell more copies of their books?

Image credits:

All images have been taken from Wikimedia Commons and are in the public domain

Saturday, 3 November 2012

Fiji - How I made Palu Sami

I first made palu sami - a staple of Pacific cuisine - in October 2009, when I was blogging about Kiribati.  I wouldn't normally make the same thing twice, but I feel that I didn't do the dish justice last time round - also, it was in the early days of Learning about the World and I hadn't started photographing the stages of the cooking process!

Making such a direct comparison to three years ago, I can see how much my cooking skills have come on - I wouldn't have dreamed of making up my own recipe for a dish like palu sami three years ago, I was so dependent on strictly 'following the recipe', whereas now I feel quite comfortable improvising and, I guess, I'm enjoying the creative process more than ever.

Death by Coconut

I decide to push the boat out this time (forgive the metaphor!) and prepare the coconut from scratch.  One of the problems when I made palu sami last time was that I used coconut milk from a tin, which gave the dish a terribly soggy taste.  I've always loved coconut and buying a real coconut always reminds me of Hallowe'en (not quite sure why), so this is the perfect time of the year to make this dish. 

I'd never opened a coconut before, but various videos I watched on Youtube made it look oh-so-easy!  Unfortunately, I seem to have ended up with the hardest coconut this side of Honiara and, I now realise that opening a coconut is an extremely precarious and dangerous pursuit!!

How to open a coconut . . . I think

I learned (via Youtube) that coconuts have 'eyes'.  Apparently the word coconut comes from the Spanish cocos or grinning face - which is what the Spanish thought a coconut looked like.  Piercing the 'eyes' is the best way to get the milk out.  Actually, this bit wasn't so difficult - using a corkscrew, as the Youtube videos recommended, I pierced the coconut, turned it upside down and drained the coconut milk into a bowl. 

Use a corkscrew to pierce the coconut eyes

Use a sieve to drain the coconut milk into a bowl or cup

Once you've drained the milk from the coconut, you should use a knife or heavy object to crack the nut open.  When I was young we always used a hammer to smash open coconuts, but I don't seem to own a hammer anymore, so I tried different tactics that I'd seen online - tapping it with a knife (unsuccessful), bouncing it off the kitchen floor (also unsuccessful) and smashing it against concrete in my back garden (success at last!)

Is there a more satisfying sight than an open coconut?
Once I'd opened the coconut, I needed to get the soft flesh out - which was also quite hard and involved more smashing (into smaller pieces), wrenching bits of nut apart and prising the fleshy bit out with a sharp knife - needless to say it was an epic struggle, one of the most ancient struggles of human experience - man v coconut!  Anyone who's seen Tom Hanks in Castaway, will feel my pain!

Getting the bits of flesh out - more difficult than one might imagine!

Grating the coconut, I was once more in familiar territory, although it was still quite a labour-intensive task - definitely worth it, for the purposes of this blog and the learning experience, but I'm not convinced I'll be smashing, wrenching apart or grating coconut again anytime soon!

After all that effort, a lovely saucer of freshly grated coconut!

Palu Sami - the Ingredients

Palu Sami ingredients
A saucer full of grated coconut
A glass of fresh coconut milk
1/2 kilo of minced beef
1 onion (chopped)
A bunch of spinach leaves (actually Fijians use taro leaves, but spinach is a good substitute)
2 tomatoes

How I made Palu Sami

Making palu sami is actually quite straight forward.  I didn't follow any particular recipe this time - I know which ingredients need to be there, so I made it my own by adding a little bit of cinnamon (a nod towards Indo-Fijian culture) and tomato, otherwise it would have been a little bit bland with just meat, spinach and coconut! 

First I fried the onion, adding some cinnamon when it softened and the cup of coconut milk to give the base a Pacific flavour!  Next I added the minced beef and fried it until it had turned brown.  In Kiribati they eat a lot of corned beef (from a tin), but I thought I'd allow myself the luxury of meat that hadn't come from a tin!  Once the beef was ready, I mixed in the grated coconut. 

Chop the onion

Fry the onion with cinnamon and coconut milk

Fry the beef and add in the freshly grated coconut

Whilst I was frying the onions and meat, I put some water in a metallic dish and heated it in the oven.  I think that, traditionally, palu sami is baked in natural underground ovens, which are dug into the earth, so I wanted to create some steam and moistness in my European oven, as it's not quite hot enough in England in October to bake anything in the ground (plus the squirrels would eat it!). 

Creating a steamy effect in the oven

I washed the spinach leaves and laid them out, three at time, on tinfoil, putting a couple of spoonfuls of the fried onion/meat and a handful of chopped tomatoes on top.  I then created small tinfoil 'packages', which I put in the oven and baked for about forty minutes at a medium temperature. 

Wash the spinach (or taro) leaves

Prepare palu sami packages on tinfoil

Tin foil packages ready for the oven
Once baked, I served the palu sami with rice.  My partner actually enjoyed it this time round, so that's a measure of success in itself!  The packages that I opened straight away, sort of fell apart on opening, which was fine, but not very aesthetically pleasing.  Other packages that I chilled over night in the fridge kept their shape really well, as you can see in the photos below:

Palu Sami with rice

Lithuanian rye bread with 'chilled' Palu Sami packets
Image credits:

All photos were taken by me, please feel free to reuse, under the Creative Commons license:

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